Cullen: Notes on Gardiner, Bobrovsky, Kunitz, O'Reilly

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Scott Cullen
3/13/2013 4:55:45 PM
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Scott Cullen has notes on the Maple Leafs' defence, Columbus' goaltending, the top-scoring lines in hockey and money well-spent in Colorado.

THE CONSTANT GARDINER
Leave it to a three-game losing streak and an article doubting that they can maintain their strong start for controversy to find the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Jake Gardiner's agent, Ben Hankinson, took to Twitter after Toronto lost 5-2 to Winnipeg Tuesday night, simply posting the hashtag #FreeJakeGardiner. This is hardly a new phenomenon on Twitter. Maybe it's unusual for it to come from the player's agent, but if anyone wants a player to get more playing time or a better opportunity than they are being afforded in their current situation, this meme has been standard fare. For example, #FreeTrevorBauer (referring to the highly-touted former Diamondbacks, current Indians, pitching prospect) got quite a bit of play in baseball circles last summer. The Diamondbacks were ultimately accommodating, apparently, dealing Bauer to Cleveland this past offseason.

Anyway, the point was clear. Watching the struggles of, most notably, Korbinian Holzer on the Maple Leafs blueline, it's evident that the Maple Leafs, who allow 32.0 shots per game, ranking 26th in the league, might be able to do better.

Some will (and have) referred to Gardiner as a minor-league prospect, ignoring that the 22-year-old played 75 NHL games last season and was, indisputably, a top-four NHL defenceman and possibly Toronto's second-best blueliner behind captain Dion Phaneuf. With that resume, Gardiner was a given to make the Maple Leafs roster this season, but he suffered a concussion playing in the AHL during the lockout and struggled in his first NHL appearance for the Maple Leafs this season, on January 23, his first game in about six weeks after suffering his concussion on December 8.

An agent sending out a tweet is hardly going to have the organization spring into action. After all, they're already keeping more than $8-million in salary cap money in the press box every night that they make defencemen Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles healthy scratches, so any change to the Toronto blueline doesn't necessarily have to involve Gardiner.

At the same time, we can hardly blame Gardiner's agent for thinking that his client might be a viable upgrade for a team that is currently employing two defencemen (Holzer and Mike Kostka) that have yet to play 30 NHL games and another, Mark Fraser, who has played fewer NHL minutes (1566 in 122 career games) than Gardiner (1658 in 77 games).

Gardiner is three NHL games away from requiring waivers if he's sent down to the American Hockey League, so there is an understanding that when he returns to the NHL, it will be for keeps, but he's knocking pretty loudly on that door. In his last 14 AHL games, Gardiner has one goal, 11 assists and is plus-3. His AHL coach, Dallas Eakins, said that Gardiner was NHL-ready a month ago.

This can be about asset management and the Leafs not wanting to risk losing players on waivers but if they are doing anything other than playing their best lineup, they run greater risk of missing the playoffs, again. Maybe the Maple Leafs will make the playoffs without Gardiner, or maybe they will miss the playoffs with him -- these are both possibilities -- but when dealing with most likely scenarios, it seems probable that Gardiner is good enough to help an NHL team that needs some, particularly on defence.

OFFICER BOBROVSKY
Sportscentre's Jay Onrait has an ongoing thing in which he calls Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, Officer Bobrovsky, as though his name sounds like a play-by-his-own-rules detective in any generic action movie.

Well, Bobrovsky has started earning notoriety for more than just his name. He was mediocre through his first dozen games with Columbus, but has been spectacular in March (5-0-1, 0.83 GAA, .970 SV%), earning first star of the week honours from the NHL last week and gaining some separation from Steve Mason in the battle for control of the crease.

LINE 'EM UP
BREAKING: Being Sidney Crosby's linemate can be beneficial when it comes to point production. Crosby's primary linemates this season have been Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, neither of whom has scored more than the 61 points Kunitz tallied last season, when he was skating frequently with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.

This season, though, Kunitz ranks second in goals (18) and third in points (37) in the entire league while leading all NHL shooters in shooting percentage (30.0%). That shooting percentage number hasn't been maintained for a full season by anyone with more than 10 goals since Andy Brickley scored 10 goals on 28 shots (35.7%) for the Bruins in 1991-1992, so the odds are in favour of Kunitz not scoring on 30% of his shots the rest of the way.

That becomes relevant because Kunitz isn't really generating that many shots (60 in 27 games; 2.22 per game, down from a career-high 2.80 per game last season) so he's really counting on high percentages to keep him at this astronomical level.

Essentially, it makes Kunitz a prime sell-high candidate for fantasy owners, even though skating with Sid tends to result in higher-than-average shooting percentages.

The line of Kunitz, Crosby and Dupuis has been the league's most productive at even-strength, scoring 25 goals. Here are the top 19 trios (9-way tie for 20th), for goal production at even strength, according to www.leftwinglock.com:

 

HE'S A FACTOR
As Ryan O'Reilly remained the lone notable unsigned restricted free agent, there were articles written about what kind of value he could bring to a team. Mine focused on his defensive value and the likelihood that, after scoring 55 points as a 20-year-old, he had room to grow offensively.

The very early returns this year suggest that he's already growing offensively. Four points in six games is nice, but about standard with last year's 55 points in 80 games. However, O'Reilly has registered 21 shots on goal in those six games (3.5 per game), which is a notable increase over last season's 189 shots in 81 games (2.33 per game), especially when one considers that O'Reilly is playing two minutes less per game right now.

Now, this is a ridiculously small sample and it includes a career-high nine shots on goal against Chicago in one game, so there's plenty of time for O'Reilly's shots on goal to regress to previous levels, but if he's generating even more offence already, then the Avs are getting a nice return for their (reluctant) investment.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Jake Gardiner (Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)
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